BRENTWOOD, CA – November 6: Shagoofa Khan (right) chants into a megaphone in front of police officers who lined up on the sidewalk beside Eric Harvey’s home to block protesters denouncing a “Sleepy Joe” Biden effigy hung by a rope from Harvey’s roof in Brentwood, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. (Dylan Bouscher/Bay Area News Group)
The waves of daily angry protests that swept through many of the nation’s cities after the police killing of George Floyd has mostly subsided, leaving in their wake some incremental steps taken on local levels toward social justice and law enforcement reform.
But in Contra Costa County — more so even than progressive hot spots Oakland and San Francisco — those protests have continued with some regularity.
Although the demonstrations vary in scale, there’s a common theme: Instead of downtown city blocks, the loud voices and occasional clashes unfurl on otherwise quiet suburban streets.
In just the past month, protests have cropped up in places Walnut Creek, Brentwood, Pittsburg and Discovery Bay, often in response to racist or other incendiary incidents.
“Politicians aren’t going to change our society and create the reforms that are needed,” said Shagoofa Khan, an Antioch resident who has participated in some of those recent protests. “It’s up to us to bring the change we want to see in our local communities.”
As Khan sees it, whereas urban cities have served as springboards for social justice movements, the suburbs typically haven’t had as many progressive voices to shed light on the racism that’s taken cover there.
“A place like Walnut Creek has so many privileged people and people who are racist,” Khan said. “We want to make sure that people in those communities use that privilege for the right reasons.”
Anti-law enforcement graffiti damages a sidewalk and sign outside city hall Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020 in downtown Walnut Creek, Calif. (Martha Ross/Bay Area News Group)
Perhaps the first sign of escalating tensions between police and demonstrators was a Black Lives Matter protest this summer in Walnut Creek, where a Black participant recounted being tear-gassed, hit with rubber bullets and bitten and scratched by police dogs.
Another boisterous protest took place earlier this month in Brentwood when residents and activists railed against law enforcement for not criminally charging a man who hung an effigy of President-elect Joe Biden by a noose. The ensuing demonstration led to one arrest by riot police at the scene.
It hasn’t all been about law enforcement, however. On Nov. 14, a demonstration in Walnut Creek saw protesters burn an American flag, spray-paint sidewalks and confront diners at the Bourbon Highway restaurant. Protesters said a restaurant employee had previously made derogatory comments about the Black Lives Matter movement. Staff at the Bourbon Highway could not be reached despite multiple requests for comment on this story.
And last weekend In Discovery Bay, area residents rallied around a Black couple who were told by a neighbor after an argument to “stop acting Black” in a “white neighborhood.”
At least in Walnut Creek, the undercurrent against police has been building for more than a year, ever since they fatally shot Miles Hall, a Black man who suffered a mental breakdown, on June 2, 2019.
It’s unclear, however, how many in the community agree with the protesters’ anti-police sentiments.
Some residents have vocally taken issue with the nature of the protests. A number of public speakers at the Walnut Creek City Council’s Nov. 17 meeting even chided police for not having responded more aggressively after the clash at Bourbon Highway.
“It’s a terrible feeling to be unsafe in your own community,” said Bill Hoban, a longtime Walnut Creek resident who called that incident an “unlawful assembly.”
“I would like to encourage that this behavior not be allowed to continue, because then it will only get worse,” said a Concord resident who gave her name as Marlane. “Hopefully, the police take care of this.”
Jay Hill, Walnut Creek’s interim police chief, said at the meeting the department had decided not to intervene during incidents of “graffiti and vandalism” at the protest.
“Had we observed anything where … public safety was in jeopardy, we would not have stood by,” Hill said. “We would have acted immediately.”
Jay Hill, the interim Walnut Creek police chief, defended law enforcement’s response to a Nov. 14 protest during a recent City Council meeting. (Screenshot)
Hill said that a local group, East Bay Resistance, organized the protest and had visited Walnut Creek “on a near-weekly basis on Saturday evenings.”
Khan, a board member of East Bay Resistance, insists the group has not organized any individual demonstration and simply shares promotional material for upcoming events, as well as resources for social justice movements.
“The point is to get the word out,” Khan said. “The organizers (of protests) are usually just individual people that create a flyer.”
While some of the protests have drawn a large number of participants, support for progressive change in Walnut Creek has not been reflected in local election results.
Candidate Michael Samson captured just 7% of the vote in this month’s City Council race, which saw two incumbents and a former longtime planning commissioner win council seats.
A newcomer to local politics, Samson advocated for a slew of far-left policies, including removing funding from the police department.
In an interview, the former candidate said the election is evidence that the city has been slow to embrace change, especially since another candidate who sought public safety reform, but took a more moderate tone, also failed to win a council seat.
That candidate, Hall family friend Kurtis Reese, would have been the only Black member of the council if elected. In contrast to Samson’s hard-line stance against police, Reese held joint meetings with cops to discuss implicit bias in law enforcement practices.
Though he was a political newcomer, however, Reese received 15% of the vote and was edged out by current Mayor Loella Haskew.
In an interview, Haskew acknowledged her re-election bid was no cakewalk but suggested most local voters wanted Walnut Creek “to go back to being what it has been.”
“They wanted people who knew what they were doing, who had not just a social issue as their calling card,” Haskew said of voters. “They wanted people who understood city financing, maintaining our parks and our quality of life.”
Haskew also condemned the Bourbon Highway incident, saying it was not a protest but “pure aggression” on the part of demonstrators.
Samson, who has participated in past Walnut Creek protests, said he doesn’t expect activists to relent any time soon.
When diplomatic measures fail, Samson said, people can stop counting on civility from those who want change.
“There’s a phrase that we’ve been hearing a lot (at protests): ‘No justice, no peace,’ ” Samson said. “If you want peace, then you need justice. You’re not going to get peace until you get justice.”